The best asset the allies had to defeat Germany turned out to be… Hitler.
Up until the summer of 1940 Hitler did everything right on the path to world domination. He re-militarized the Rhineland, annexed the Sudetenland, eventually took over Czechoslovakia, turned Slovakia into a satellite state, won the support of Hungary and Romania, took over Austria, walked over Poland with the support of the Soviet-Union, conquered Denmark and Norway (perhaps not the best decision, because the German navy incurred some losses, but still), conquered Belgium, The Netherlands and Luxemburg. And most astonishing of all blitzed France to a humiliating defeat in record time, perhaps the most remarkable victory of the entire 20th century.
If Hitler had died of a heart attack in the summer of 1940 he would probably be ranked as one of the world’s greatest strategists and military geniuses. All this credit he squandered in a shocking string of blunders. Even at the height of his success he made a surprising mistake. When his forces breached the flank of the allied armies by slashing through the Ardennes with armored forces, cutting the enemy in two and driving the British towards the coast to an almost inevitable mass surrender, he paused. The British and a large number of French forces got bottled up at Dunkirk, but instead of pushing on, Hitler halted his forces and opted to let the Luftwaffe destroy the embattled allies that were frantically scrambling to leave the coastal town behind and cross over to England.
The plan didn’t work, the allies escaped, mostly without their equipment, but the men didn’t go into German captivity and went on to form the nucleus of an army that would eventually pose a major threat.
Historians have developed many theories to explain this seemingly erratic move. Some say he halted his forces as a gesture towards the British. If he let them escape they might be more willing to conclude a peace later. A rather absurd claim. It’s true that Hitler had a lot of sympathy for the British and wanted to make peace with them. He was afraid that if Britain collapsed its entire colonial empire would collapse as well and other nations would pick up the pieces. Hitler often had very flawed reasoning and overthought matters until reality and imagination started to blur. The British would never have accepted a separate peace, they would never have left the Germans in control of the European continent, and the chances of their making peace would certainly not be improved with a nucleus to form a new defiant army around. If Hitler wanted peace his best option was to utterly thrash the British and capture every single soldier he could at Dunkirk.
Another theory is that Hitler wanted to make a statement to his generals. His generals clamored to push on. He wanted to show who was the boss and halted them, just because he could, because he was the man in charge, period. This reflex to show who was the boss may have played a role.
The third and most plausible theory is that Hitler lost his nerve and became scared. He was afraid the French would attack the German forces that had cut through Northern France. The French were almost entirely incapable of pulling this off because they hadn’t understood the art of making war with tanks. Hitler wasn’t aware of just how paralyzed French forces were and halted the German spearheads. Leaving it to Luftwaffe to finish the job. A bad decision, but with the ignominious surrender of France only a little while later it seemed only a small stain on an otherwise brilliant canvas. At the height of his triumph however Hitler would start making one stupendous mistake after the other.
Attacking the wrong islands
It’s very well possible a German invasion of England might have succeeded immediately following the collapse of France, but operation Seelöwe was postponed again and again until it was postponed indefinitely. It would have been a risky business for sure and there were other options.
Instead of invading or focusing his attention elsewhere where he could really hurt the British, namely in North Africa by capturing the Suez Canal and storming all the way to the oil fields of the Middle East, he opted to launch a bombing campaign against England.
At first this went fairly well, because in the initial stages the Luftwaffe targeted British airfields and other vital infrastructure. The toll started to tell, even though the British had several advantages such as radar, the excellent Spitfire airplane and the fact that they were protecting their own skies and the Germans couldn’t stay long above England before they had to return to refuel. The British were also outproducing the Germans. In spite of all this the Germans were slowly gaining the upper hand.
Just when the British started struggling to maintain their airfields and keep their pilots in the air, Hitler switched to terror bombing. Instead of targeting air fields, he wanted to bomb London to try and cripple civilian morale. The British air force recovered, civilian morale did not collapse, even though the damage was significant, and slowly, but steadily the Luftwaffe was chased from British skies. The battle of England turned out to be a clear German failure.
The motive for Hitler’s switch during the campaign shows just how much he was akin to a petulant child bent on instant gratification. On the 25th of August the Royal Air Force managed to bomb Berlin. The damage was small, but Hitler was outraged. He wanted to retaliate. Instead of focusing on a clear strategic plan that was certain to cripple the enemy’s air force, he wanted revenge and wanted to cause as much visible damage as possible, the kind of damage that looked good propaganda wise. Time and time again we see that Hitler was incapable of sticking to a roundabout course of action, he was impatient, hit the enemy head on, and refused to hit the enemy where he was truly vulnerable. He either lacked the patience or simply didn’t understand strategy.
Side show Rommel
We see this again in his decision to devote only very limited attention and forces to North Africa. The British position there was very vulnerable. The Italians in Libya were no match for them, with poor tanks, poor equipment, incredibly poor leadership and soldiers with very little taste for a fight. The outnumbered British made short work of the Italians. As a token of support Hitler sent one of his best division commanders to the theater, Erwin Rommel, but with a very small force.
Rommel proved to be a genius and beat the British on several occasions. He kept asking for reinforcements -only a couple of divisions-, but Hitler sent only a trickle. Even worse, Hitler refused to secure the supply lines that ran from Italy to the German Afrikakorps. The key to protecting those lines was Malta, an island in the hands of the British from where they could easily destroy Axis supply ships and transports. Instead of securing this island, Hitler opted to conquer Crete, a useless operation, deemed necessary to protect oils fields in Romania against potential British air strikes launched from bases on Crete.
A far better strategy would have been to take Malta, supply Rommel with at least three more panzer divisions and let him take Egypt and block the Suez Canal. This would have made the entire British position in the Mediterranean untenable. Hitler fantasied about taking Gibraltar, an almost impregnable British position in the south of Spain, Hitler couldn’t take it unless he got Franco’s support or if he attacked across Spanish territory.
There was no need for such an operation at all, if he had taken over all of North-Africa – with or without the support of the French Vichy regime – he could easily have dominated the strait of Gibraltar. The Mediterranean would have become an Axis lake. The Axis could have gained control over the oil fields in the Middle East, which were far more important than the Ploesti oil fields in Romania that Hitler was so concerned about.
None of this happened of course. Rommel got the absolute maximum out of his token force and thrashed the British several times, but in the end it was virtually impossible to take Egypt with such a small force. Later he was forced back. The chance was lost. Especially after US troops landed in North Africa which doomed the Afrikakorps.
Conquest of Palestine, Iraq and Iran would have severely damaged the strategic position of the Soviet Union as well. The Axis would have been poised on the Soviet flank, and close to the vital oil fields of the Caucasus.
A big appetite and a small mouth
This leads to another abysmal failure. Hitler’s frontal assault on the Soviet-Union. Instead of opting to flank the Soviet Union and firmly securing his position in Europe and Africa, thereby handicapping Britain to have any real influence on the course of the war, he knocked his head straight on the Soviet front door. He was very lucky that Stalin had concentrated large forces close to the border and that the Soviets, just like the French, weren’t aware of the possibilities of massing tanks. Instead they had spread out their tanks to support infantry. The Germans quickly surrounded large concentrations of Soviet troops who surrendered en masse, but only after putting up stiff resistance, unlike anything the Germans had encountered up until then.
The German attack went surprisingly well, but at a heavy cost. This initial success was largely wasted however by Hitler’s decision to set way too many goals for his troops and by exhausting them by shifting them back and forth.
He set three goals: the capture -through starvation- of Leningrad, the capture of Moscow and the conquest of the Ukraine. On top of this he put off the drive towards Moscow in favor of capturing the Ukraine and forcing the surrender of encircled Soviet soldiers there. When he finally did decide to take out Moscow it was too late. The supply situation in the German army was getting increasingly difficult and Stalin had used the respite to shift troops from Siberia to Moscow. These were hard fighting and well equipped forces that helped to beat back the German assault on the Soviet capital.
It’s true that the Soviet Union would have continued the war even after the loss of its capital, a vital nerve center of communication and transport, but it would have dealt a very severe blow to the Soviets. It would also have been a huge propaganda victory. The Germans did not spend the winter in Moscow, instead they froze their ass off deep into Soviet territory in the midst of one of the hardest winters in a very long time.
German generals wanted to retreat to a shorter line that would have been more easy to defend, but Hitler refused, he ordered them to stay put. About 100,000 German veterans froze to death, but remarkably, the line held. This led Hitler to believe that it was ALWAYS better to hold to line and for the remainder of the war he would designate any threatened city as a ‘Festung’ or Fortress and deny German officers permission to retreat until it was too late. Even retreating to shorten the front lines and allow for a better defense was out of the question.
A stalemate was possible
Some historians argue that Hitler could never have won the war after the failure of operation Typhoon, the battle for Moscow, but this thinking overlooks the vast tactical superiority of the German army and the superb quality of its officers and fighting men. In 1942 and even in 1943 or 1944 the German army could still have fought the Soviet Union to a bloody stalemate. The Germans still excelled at mobile warfare, they still had superior command systems, known as Auftragstaktik, that gave officers in the field a lot more freedom and encouraged their initiative. In the Soviet army there was a sort of command paralysis where no one dared to take initiative for fear of being court-martialed and shot.
Hitler completely forfeited this advantage by focusing on offensives, refusal to retreat in any circumstances, by attacking strong Soviet positions head on and -again- by setting much too ambitious goals.
In 1942 he made the disastrous decision of splitting his forces in the south in two, one part was to take Stalingrad, the other part was to take the oil fields of the Caucasus. Even either one of these goals would have been very tricky to pull off. On top of this it made no sense to capture Stalingrad and it certainly made no sense to move the mobile, tactically superior, into the heap of rubble that this city had become. Prior to moving into Stalingrad the Germans launched the biggest aerial bombardment of the war on the eastern front. The city was turned into one big bunker. Tanks could not maneuver in the rubble, the German soldiers had to turn to street fighting, capturing the city house by house, street by street and block by block. The Germans were not trained for this sort of combat.
Nevertheless, they forced the Soviets back and after almost two months of fighting the Soviets only clung to a small part of the city along the banks of the Wolga river. The Soviets then launched an offensive of their own and encircled the city. Hitler – as always- refused to let the Germans at Stalingrad retreat. He backed the delusional plan to supply the besieged army by air. The sixth army at Stalingrad needed 700 tons of supplies a day if it had to have any chance to survive. In the best of circumstances half of that was possible. Often only 90 tons a day arrived. The Sixth army started to perish. Erich Von Manstein, another German military genius, almost managed to open a corridor to the besieged, but Hitler refused to let them break out. The loss of the Sixth army was a major bloodletting for the German army. On top of that it made the position of the other part of the German southern front, in the Caucasus, very perilous. Von Manstein realized that the Germans needed to retreat. Von Manstein wanted to more than that, he wanted to lure the Soviets in a trap, by letting them advance and then stabbing them in the flank. The army in the Caucasus was saved eventually, but an intricate, yet viable plan Von Manstein offered to give the Soviets a bloody nose through cunning defensive-offensive tactics was something Hitler just wouldn’t allow.
Amazingly though the Germans managed to stabilize the front and Hitler would go on to wreck the army in 1943 with the practically suicidal assault on the Kursk salient, a heavily fortified position that looked juicy enough on a map, but was in reality a death trap.
An inflexible mind
This focus on frontal assaults, on attacking the enemy where he was strongest destroyed the German army’s capacity for offensive war fare, yet Hitler refused to go over on the defensive. When Rommel devised a defensive plan involving deep mine fields and the massive use of anti-tank guns, he refused to implement it. Until the very last stages of the war Hitler kept thinking offensively, dreaming of offensives that would shatter the enemy, wide sweeping operations that his armies simply lacked the strength for.
In Africa he was dumb enough to send reinforcements when it was too late, when the Americans and British had amassed vastly superior forces. Instead of retreating his troops to Italy where they could make a real stand, he let them be bottled up in Tunisia where they were forced to surrender, a loss that was even worse than the loss of the sixth army at Stalingrad. Remarkably the defense of Italy after this catastrophe went fairly well, even after the Italians gave up and tried to switch sides.
Hitler was sleeping when D-day was in full swing, which paralyzed the German reaction to the allied landings in France. Rommel had wanted to keep tanks right near the coast to defeat the allies on the beaches, but Hitler decided to spread his forces thin all the way from the Netherlands to the south of France, even though an allied attack could be expected in only a couple of places, the allies couldn’t land just anywhere, their options were limited and the Germans could have guessed.
If the tanks had been there from the start, the invasion would almost certainly have failed. After the allies managed to get a foot on the ground, against tough opposition by German troops, Hitler again made some stupendous decisions by demanding offensives. Large numbers of German soldiers got surrounded in the Falaise pocket and were destroyed.
After that debacle things went quickly, Paris fell, and the allies stormed through France and Belgium was liberated.
They could have won the war months earlier, but they also made some mistakes and their supply situation was far from optimal. Hitler then was lucky that the allies tried to force their way into Germany by an attack involving lots of parachute landings in the Netherlands. Operation Market Garden failed. Germany got some respite on the western front.
Hitler then decided on his last great gamble. He stripped the eastern front of some vital forces and sent them West. He ordered a massive buildup of almost 300,000 troops -an impressive figure given the staggering losses the Germans had suffered- around the Ardennes and launched an attack aimed at recapturing the Belgian port of Antwerp. The surprise was total and led to the costliest battle in American history, but the Germans from the outset never had the necessary supplies to reach their destination. The plan’s success hinged on capturing allied supply dumps and… the weather. Bad winter weather was supposed to keep the massive allied air force on the ground. As soon as allied planes were able to take off the offensive was entirely doomed. Hitler had destroyed the last offensive capabilities of his army. The western front was shattered and on the eastern front the Russians met less opposition then they could have faced if Hitler had focused on fighting a defensive war aimed to reach a stalemate, not total victory.
Squandering of opportunities
Hitler made other mistakes such as the very expensive V1 and V2 project. One V2 rocket cost about as much as an excellent bomber and could be used only once, whereas a bomber could be used lots of times as long as it wasn’t put out of action. The V-rockets also had a rather small payload and in the end did little damage.
At a critical moment in the war he also refused to produce the necessary number of U-boats to destroy allied shipping, and after initial successes the Axis also lost the battle of the Atlantic.
His decision to treat conquered people in the east as Untermenschen caused these men and women to turn against the Axis, whereas at first many of them greeted the Germans as liberators who would destroy the communist yoke they were suffering under.
A winning strategy would have involved the conquest of North Africa and the Middle East, turning the Mediterranean into an Axis lake, not declaring war on the United States -as Hitler incomprehensibly did after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor- and isolating the Soviet Union, flanking them and then attacking them or forcing to pay tribute. If the Axis had controlled the Middle East, the Soviet Union would have been in such a hopeless position it would have had little choice but to comply with German demands and the same goes for Turkey.
Hitler lacked the flexibility to see any of this, he wanted quick results and saw only straight paths to his goals. He also wanted to accomplish too many things at the same time, and oddly, for a risk taker such as Hitler, he often did not dare to commit enough forces to an attack. At the time of Von Manstein’s operation to save the sixth army at Stalingrad he refused to draw large numbers of men from less threatened sections of the front to turn the operation into a success.
In a way it’s good that Hitler survived until the end of the war so everyone could see that he led Germany to destruction. Otherwise some fans might still think that somehow he would have thought of something to turn the tide. Now it’s clear that he didn’t have a trick up his sleeve, that he was incapable of learning from his mistakes, that he grew even more rigid as time went on and that eventually he even turned on his own people, with the infamous Nero order. Since Hitler could never admit to a mistake he had to blame the German people for his defeat. Hitler somehow came to believe that will power trumped strategic insight, numbers, production or any other circumstances. His will power and charisma dominated people around him and scared weak political opponents, but on the battle field it often takes far more than mere will power to be victorious.
This article is based on extensive reading, but two books stand out:
-Anmerkungen zu Hitler, by Sebastian Haffner, click here for the German version.
Or click here for the English version, titled ‘the meaning of Hitler’
-How Hitler could have won world war II, by Bevin Alexander. Click here to get a copy.
It is always easy to look back and find the mistakes.
The game of war is to make dicision under the fog of war (with little information available on the enemy).
On Dunkurk, Hitler’s decision is along the teaching of Sun Tzu: Leaving an escape route to your enemy so that they know it and would not fight back too hard.
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Agree with you in the case of Dunkirk, they couldn’t know what the French would do. Later in the war, with his Festung ‘strategy’ I think he made one dumb mistake after the other that certainly hastened his downfall.
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